It’s been a long time since I was really nervous when speaking to a group of people. But as I stood in front of a group of 15 beginning English students last week in Quito, Ecuador, my heart was pounding.
They spoke little English. And my Spanish was shaky at best. I had been taking Spanish lessons for almost a year. But I had no confidence.
I was in Ecuador to work (in English) with the executives of one of our clients. But I had flown down a few days early and had been invited by my tour guide, a university English teacher, to speak to his class largely in Spanish.
Struggling through that class with my intermediate-level Spanish, I learned some things we should all consider as we try to improve our communication skills.
Lesson 1: There is no growth without discomfort
The teacher, Edgar, introduced me to his students as “un hombre muy importante en los Estados Unidos.” I didn’t feel particularly “importante,” especially since I wasn’t certain at all if I was going to be able to deliver any portion of my program without stumbling badly.
But they were looking at me, expecting something from this “hombre muy importante.” So I stood and started talking. “Hay tres cosas que son más importantes al dar un discurso” (There are three things most important when giving a speech).
And I was off and running. And they understood me. And it was thrilling to be communicating in another language. But it wouldn’t have happened without the extreme level of discomfort that came with the risk of trying this new thing.
Of course, we see people in our public speaking classes every week struggle with this same problem as we push them to try new ways to present their ideas. They object, saying things like, “What you’re asking me to do feels weird. It’s uncomfortable.”
“That’s great,” I say. “There is no growth without discomfort.”
Lesson 2: It’s connection, not perfection
I made plenty of mistakes speaking Spanish to these students and my accent wasn’t great. But when I stumbled, Edgar helped me and it wasn’t an issue. What mattered most was that we connected. Before long, they were asking questions and we were having a discussion around the important ideas at the heart of my message.
I work with many people who get upset whenever they are giving a presentation and say the wrong word or mangle a sentence. But who cares? The goal is connection. I am nothing close to eloquent in Spanish. But I was able to connect.
Lesson 3. A smile coupled with eye contact connects in any language
Throughout Ecuador I found that I could connect with anyone by saying “Eres mi nuevo profesor de español” (You’re my new Spanish teacher). And as I said it, I would look them in the eye and smile.
That never failed to evoke a smile in return. It also brought out a willingness to help me improve my Spanish. Waiters would show me how to best order a beer. Cab drivers would give me guided tours of the city. And of course, my students helped me anytime I stumbled with the language.
Eye contact coupled with a smile establishes a warm relationship regardless of language barriers.
No PowerPoint slides can build a relationship better.